Paul P.’s disembodied faces are taken from vintage gay erotica, paying tribute to the queer community which weathered the “mortal emergency” of Aids before him
What does beauty look like? In the world of Canadian artist Paul P., it is a particularly ghostly take on the queer. For him, this romanticised otherworldliness is an indicator of a history of personal desire and difference. His intimate paintings and delicate sculptures have garnered him steady, quiet success – with lauded shows at Queer Thoughts in New York, and spaces in the collections of MoMA and the Whitney in New York, the AGO in Toronto and LACMA in Los Angeles.
The young men he paints – often solely focusing on their disembodied faces – are all taken from vintage gay erotic magazines, specifically from the years between the advent of gay liberation in the 1960s and the awareness of the Aids crisis in the early 1980s. “Having been born in 1977, I’m indebted to the community of artists who operated throughout this mortal emergency, and the many who died in and around the early 90s as I came into my sexual and artistic awareness,” the artist explains. His paintings are in no way pornographic or exploitative but instead take these young men and raise them into icons of outlawed sexuality.
This week, an exhibition of his paintings is opening at Maureen Paley’s stunning Hove space, Morena di Luna (the gallery remains open by appointment only for now, but as with all art openings during the outbreak of Covid-19, please keep your eye on Maureen Paley’s Instagram and website for potential cancellations). The exhibition was made with the Georgian seaside location in mind: Centaurs on the Beach is comprised primarily of oil paintings; portraits mixed with non-figurative works and seascapes. These pieces are, as Paul describes them, somewhere between “landscape, architecture, and atmospheres”.
There is something innately fragile about Paul’s work, and not just in the subject matter. He is drawn to early 20th-century dandies, such as the Bright Young Things in London in the 1920s who took the effete as a rejection of post-World War One cultural values. A small work in the Hove show includes a collage on notepaper of a supine Stephen Tennant, “the poet prodigy turned recluse,” Paul explains. “Dandy poets like Tennant and Brian Howard, outspoken in their era of criminalised homosexuality, remind me of the imaginative and creative capacities of small and intimate milieus that have striven for, and plotted out, fantastical visions of civilisation filled with beauty, reason and freedom, at times when the world has been at its most hostile.”
Paul, who also lived in Paris for many years with his partner, the artist Scott Treleaven, has been increasingly drawn to global locations with a queer social history such as Venice, Italy and Venice Beach, California, for example – “both peripheral and water-bounded places haunted by their bygone licentiousness and allure to outcasts,” as he describes. Brighton fits perfectly with this attraction to liminal history. Like late 19th-century artists John Singer Sargent or James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Paul’s style has dreamy mistiness. A sense of non-time hovering around sunset or dusk, where shadows and those who live in them flourish.
Most of his pieces are small – an intentional comment on big, white, straight, male painters creating giant canvases. Even his scale is a comment on a different masculine image – instead, we are presented with “languid countenances and exhausted poses” that are on the edge of constant collapse. There is something autobiographical here; Paul is drawn back to the complexities of his own experience and discovery of sexuality. Yet there are also wider things going on where the politics of what the erotic looks like is reimagined. This is thoughtful work which deserves to be seen.
Paul P. is open by appointment at Maureen Paley Morena di Luna, Hove from March 21 – May 10, 2020. Please keep an eye on maureenpaley.com for updates.